Pathogens, pollution, plastics. Carcinogens in the air, germs in the water, heavy metals in food, endocrine (hormone) disruptors in the environment. Degraded forests, bleached coral reefs, disappearing wildlife, declining biodiversity. Despite the advances of the last 200 years, Earth seems like a bloody unpleasant place to be in the Anthropocene. Not perhaps as bad as some of the dark, brooding dystopian cities seen in Hollywood science fiction movies, not even perhaps as dingy Victorian England (for all barring the aristocrats), but surely getting there. Note that at the heart of all of this imagined dsytopia in fiction is social upheaval (or an alternate social order) but equally, an environmental catastrophe extrapolated.

As Bill Watterson’s creation Calvin states while looking at a tree stump, “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

We have been aware of environmental issues for a while, notably since the 1960s when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought attention to it. And it was already part of popular culture, as the satirist-musician-mathematician Tom Lehrer, in his song Pollution, told citizens visiting American cities, “Just two things you must beware, don’t drink the water and don’t breathe air.” This period then spawned wildlife conservation worldwide, notably multinational corporations such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy (and later Conservation International) that have exported their particular brand of conservation worldwide.

Thankfully, there is greater attention to environmental matters and conservation, including in India, than there was even a couple of decades ago. Or, to rephrase it, there is a particular kind of awareness among city-dwelling communities that are the cause of many of the problems in the first place. Environmentalism and conservation have come to represent a narrow set of norms defined by a particular urban elite community that, somewhat ironically in today’s divided world, is similar across cultures, nationalities and ethnicities.

This view of conservation has led to a number of misconceptions, created both by the community and perceptions of it from outside. Here, I set out to debunk some of these myths and then, hopefully, to offer some solutions.

Five myths: Population growth to vegetarianism

Myth 1: Environment and development are inherently contradictory; ergo, environmentalists want us to return to a Gandhian way of life. If development is indeed for the poor, as governments and corporations argue, then why has inequity grown in so many poor countries? Why, despite increases in gross domestic product, have so many fundamental problems of poverty not been resolved? Environmentalists do not oppose development, just a form of development that benefits certain sections of society and does environmental harm when it need not.

Myth 2: Population growth is the problem. Ever since Paul Ehrich wrote The Population Bomb, this has been a convenient hook to hang environmental problems on. However, Ehrich has been shown to be wrong in nearly every prediction he has made in the last 50 years. Whether at the scale of the globe, of countries, cities or communities, it has been shown that consumption is confined to a few. There is no doubt that population growth in India and China (and elsewhere) should be curbed, and there is a mass of evidence that this can be done, democratically in India (less so in China) through education and empowerment of women (population growth rates have fallen dramatically in most southern states and several others). But this slightly red (perhaps pink) herring distracts from the real problem, namely consumption arising from commodification arising from capitalism (at least a particular form of it).

The focus on population growth distracts from the real problem of consumption. (Credit: Punit Paranjape / AFP)

Myth 3: Nature and humans are separate. While this has been at the core of many conservation ideologies over the decades, a more inclusive notion of conservation involving local communities has become more fashionable in recent years. However, exclusionary notions have reared their ugly head through movements such as Half-Earth, which claim that half of the planet needs to be set aside for nature. Needless to say, the half who have to give stuff up are all conveniently located in the developing tropics, and even there will largely affect the most marginalised, disenfranchised communities. No one is talking about reforesting New York or rewilding Mumbai. Surely, their patron saint must be Thanos (of Avengers fame) who wiped out half of the universe to save it (for entirely environmental reasons). Thanos, at least, did not discriminate and vapourised half quite randomly (using an advanced algorithm, no doubt).

Myth 4: Complete protection of wildlife is a noble goal, ergo any consumptive use is bad. In the world of conservation and resource management, the notion of animal rights has prevented many forms of legitimate resource use. Wildlife can be saved because of their aesthetic appeal for some sections of society, but to demand that everyone do so for the same reason is fascist. Save it to see it and save it to eat it are equally valid cultural reasons.

Unfortunately, it is not only lay persons that confuse animal rights with conservation. Many scholars point out that the two are not compatible and contradict each other. The focus on the individual (in animal rights) versus the collective (at species, landscape or ecosystem levels) in conservation will inevitably result in contradictory actions and outcomes. To be clear, conservationists are not without compassion; in fact, animal welfare (reducing cruelty) and conservation are not incompatible, though they have different goals.

Myth 5: Vegetarianism is environmentally friendly. This is based on the utterly simplistic (political, economic, agronomic, and cultural) premise that there is a loss of energy in the trophic chain, and that it costs more energetically to make a kilo of meat than a kilo of grass. Yes, it does cost more energetically, and of course, no one needs to consume meat the way the West does.

However, our “vegetarian” ways could not possibly be worse for the environment or for our health, especially in India. We need not even consider the historical fact that it was the growth of agrarian societies that led to the expansion of human settlement, war, colonialism and eventually industrial growth that resulted in today’s predicament. Never mind that. Today, we consume enormous quantities of carbohydrate through rice and wheat, and other fertiliser- and pesticide-heavy crops. Both crops are a major cause of the water problems that beset our country, and rice has been shown to have a much greater climate impact than thought before. We have done everything from building unsustainable dams to ridiculous river linking projects to feed this thirsty crop. Studies show that water consumption can be reduced by a third and nutrition increased by changing cropping patterns in India. In fact, the latest research suggests that water consumption can be reduced by up to 35% by healthy diets containing meat, and by up to 50% by healthy pescetarian diets. And let us not even get started on sugar, the most widely available addictive substance on the planet that has substantial environmental and human health consequences.

Additionally, vegetarianism in India comes with its problematic moral and communal baggage. For many communities that live off the land by gathering, hunting and fishing, vegetarianism and gentrification creates nutritional problems, and loss of traditional ways of life, culture, knowledge and identity.

Wheat and rice are a major cause of the water problems that beset our country. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, there are energy trade-offs in everything we do. Take flights, drive cars, buy furniture, order takeaway. It all adds up. Campaigning with religious fervour against some forms of food (or plastic or energy) consumption that do not add up to a worse carbon footprint than most other urban habits is just that, a new religion.

So, what do we need to do? There are some fundamental principles we need to follow to make environmentalism a universal rather than an elite doctrine, and to pave the way for a happier planet.

Solutions: The way forward

Step 1: Connect with nature. But not just in a rich people way. We need to be more inclusive in how we think about the environment. From our views on politics to religion to our relationship with nature, we need to build greater diversity and tolerance. Some people will be vegetarian, some will eat meat (while promoting humane practices), others will hunt and fish. Helping communities preserve these connections (rather than moving them away) is critical to strengthening support and building a wider constituency for environmental conservation. In addition, creating empathy for and engagement with the environment for the new, largely urban generation who have long been divorced from nature is essential.

Step 2: Connect with carbon. Some of us will live in cities, others in a variety of other places, and our impacts will differ. Why is it reasonable to retire to a Swiss chalet to be part of nature (after a lifetime of carbon consumption) but unacceptable to live in a forest or by the sea where your family has for centuries? Plastics have received a really bad rap, especially marine plastics in the last few months (thanks, Blue Planet 2), but often the alternative is worse. We need to first be aware of the carbon and biodiversity (and water) costs of all our actions and work towards reducing these in totality, at individual, community and societal scales.

Step 3: Connect the dots. We need to stop working in silos. Perhaps our most expensive mistake has been to separate social, environmental and ecological issues. Conservationists believe we need to focus on a few important species and habitats. After all, they argue, the world’s problems will always exist, but forests and biodiversity will disappear forever. This is partially true, but we cannot solve the problems of our time in isolation. Economically poor communities need healthcare, clean water, education for their children. Whether these have direct benefits for environmental conservation or not, they create barriers and impede our ability to create positive change for the environment. Environmental conservation has to be rooted in environmental justice, that embeds itself squarely in social justice.

Lack of education, healthcare, clean water impede our ability to create positive change for the environment. (Credit: HT)

For all those reading this, the message is not (a) we need not care about the environment, (b) it has gone to pot, there is nothing we can do, (c) it is confusing and so I am going to do nothing about it. The planet may or may not be sick, but we are. Cancer or clinical depression, communalism, climate change. Individual, collective or global problems – they are more linked than you think. By the same dystopia. If we do not learn to address these problems collectively, then, as the stand-up comedian and social critic George Carlin said, “The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”

The way forward lies in viewing the world as a common cultural experience. In learning to live together with a shared understanding of the world – to appreciate our relationship with it, with nature. To understand it through science, through art, music and writing, the things that make all of us more similar to each other. And perhaps glean from it a nugget, grab from it a notion that we can use to share this random rock in space.

Kartik Shanker is an ecologist and writer with a love for both mountains and marine life.